innovation, ethnography, culture, and the corporation

What’s a good way to explain culture?

Here’s one way to do it.  Suggestions are welcome.

Let’s say we wanted to ask a perfect stranger to participate in a relay race.  This stranger has no prior introduction to the idea of the race.  They have never heard of it. 

At a minimum, we’d have to explain the concept, the rules, the race. Drawing on the Wikipedia entry, we’d say something like

In a relay race, members of a team take turns running parts of a circuit.  Each runner hands off the baton to the next runner at a certain zone. 

In effect we are programming the stranger, supplying him or her with the knowledge he or she would need to participate in the event.  It’s going to be time consuming.  The stranger will say things like

ok, so you want me to carry this stick once around the track, and then give it to someone, right?

Right.  Fight temptation to roll eyes.  It’s actually a little bit more complicated.  Never mind, this will come.  First the idea, then the practice.  But finally, we’ve build knowledge into memory and ability into muscle memory.

Now the stranger can run the race.  Not well, but thanks to our efforts, he’s mastered the little things.  Like, well, listening for the starter’s gun, which way to run on the track, that he should "stay in his lane," to whom the baton should be passed.  "Not that guy.  He works for the competition.  That guy.  Better."   

When you break it down, it’s a lot of knowledge.  And it is not just stuff you need to know.  It’s stuff you need to have deeply embedded in mind and body.  When you stop assuming the things we all know about the relay race, the instructions, the software, turns out to be kinda intricate.  (We can imagine the code required to program a machine to run a race.)

Now compare this to the knowledge in the head of a member of the American relay team competing in Beijing this summer.  The Olympian knows exactly what the relay is, where to go, where to stand, what to do, and so on.  He or she has a deeply embedded knowledge of relay.

Ok, now compare these two people: the perfect stranger and the American Olympian.  Culture is exactly the difference between what is in the head of the Olympian vs. what is in the head of the stranger. 

This is not a pedantic exercise.  Engineers do well, thank you very much, without knowing about culture.  They do astonishing things.  Bridges, I believe are everyone’s favorite example.  And quite right too.  Without engineering, every passage shore to shore would be an foolhardy act of faith.

But the fact that engineers don’t know about culture can be a problem.  Because culture is the place that essential knowledge sometimes hides.  Culture contains the things we need to know about the consumer.  And it also contains the things we are assuming in our lab in the corporation.

In both cases, this is deeply embedded, deeply assumed, knowledge.  Consumers cannot readily tell us what they are thinking.  It is assumed knowledge.  Which is to say, consumers know things about the world they do not know they know.  There is assumed knowledge on the corporate side as well.  The corporation and its engineers hold certain assumptions so deeply they can no longer see them. 

So here’s my plan.  It is to suggest that when the engineers think about the consumer, they think about themselves as a relay racer who understands the race, speaking to a consumer who has no clue.  The task now is to surface all the assumptions the engineer is making and make sure these get passed along to the consumer.  As we have seen, there are lots of things the engineer/race knows that must be passed along.  The trick is to make sure these things are not concealed from the engineer by their familiarity.  The trick is to make sure the corporate culture is not getting in the way. 

But we could work it the other way round.  We could suggest that engineers think about the consumer as the American Olympian, and about themselves as the novice.  In this case, the engineer should assume that the consumer is a person who lives in a highly complicated world, one that is mysterious to the engineer.  The task now is to get into this world of knowledge.  This won’t be easy because the consumer doesn’t always know what they know.  They can’t always say what they are thinking.  We can’t just ask them.  We have to listen and probe and follow up and ask some more. 

And this is why God created ethnography.  This is the technique expressly designed for listening for assumed knowledge.  This is the way we get at culture.  This is the way we learn the things a racer needs to know in order to race.  This is the way we learn what the engineer needs to know to create something that actually serves the consumer.

And this is why God created ethnographers.  Professionals with real training and experience.  Ethnography does not mean an interview done in someone’s home.  It cannot be done by someone who took an anthropology course in college.  It cannot be done by someone who "thought about majoring in sociology."  There is tons of data flying around, and hundreds of interpretive possibilities. The search for embedded knowledge, this takes patience, skill, a delicate interpretive touch and a certain brute intelligence.  Many of the people now pretending to be ethnographers are simply too stupid for the assignment.  Training aside, they are simply too stupid to process the data. 

Ethnography shouldn’t be done by amateurs anymore than bridges should be designed by someone who "really thought about going into engineering." Caveat emptor.  We get want we pay for. 

11 thoughts on “innovation, ethnography, culture, and the corporation

  1. John

    And this is why “Introduction to Anthopology, Ethnography, and Culture” should be a required class in every institution of higher learning.

  2. srp

    Your description of unstated assumptions sounds exactly like the view taken by Doug Lenat, the computer scientist. He’s been running a multi-decade project called CYC to encode a common-sense ontology of the world in propositional form. Originally the idea was to write down all the things the writer of an Encyclopedia Britannica article implicitly assumed that the reader knew. By this time, the project has morphed considerably as the funding environment has changed and the technological background has shifted. You can check it out at

    The difference between your argument and Lenat’s is that you are focusing on what unstated assumptions people do NOT have in common. Unfortunately, as you point out, this type of cross-cultural or cross-disciplinary learning is costly and difficult. It should be reserved for the most critical trans-specialist interactions.

  3. Natasha Estey

    Grant. Great post! I like the analogy. I’m curious to know what you, personally, would consider appropriate “training and experience” to rightfully call oneself an ethnographer?

  4. Grant McCracken

    Natasha, I think it comes down to intelligence. So I am the last one to call for certification. Not very gifted people know how to game this system. I don’t think a guy like Steve Portigal has formal training in ethnography but he is obviously deeply talented. So we need some system that isn’t certification based on education. Maybe we should have an online journal. If you write something good enough to get in the journal, you are part of the field. It’s a tough problem. Best, Grant

  5. PS

    Great post! In a related context, I’ve had many internal corporate clients who claimed to be seeking “insight” on a business problem, but were unable get any more specific about what they expected from me. My suggestion was that they were hoping to find something that was, “… the unexpected factor that is completely obvious when revealed becuase it explains so much.” I’ll bet you’ll be able to judge the qualifications of ethnographers in an analogous manner, looking at examples of their work. They find the “unexpected” assumptions that solve many cultural puzzles at once.

  6. Peter

    The analogy of programming a new person to run in a relay race is a good starting point, Grant. For businesses (and indeed, any other human activity), I would continue the analogy to programming a new person to run in a relay race where the rules of the race are constantly changing, and where the other runners (some even with years of experience) disagree profoundly among themselves about what the rules actually are, or even whether there are any rules. In fact, all these participants may be correct, insofar as the rules may look different from different perspectives, and one simple activity may be acting in society on many different levels. How to write a program for participation in such a race?

    This, incidentally, is the key reason why creating Artificial Intelligence has proven so difficult. Human culture is rich, sophisticated, and very, very dynamic.

    One of the nice applications of similar ideas I have seen is to ask focus groups of consumers to advise a new person becoming a product engineer or marketer — ie, to first describe the existing product purchase and/or use experience, then redesign it to better suit customers, and then, having done these tasks, to create instructions for a new person joining the company’s engineering or marketing team. Of course, as you say, consumers often have trouble articulating what they know and think. Focus group facilitators really earn their keep here.

  7. Steve Portigal

    Thanks, Grant. I am amused to be the poster child for the non-social-scientist ethnographer who isn’t faking it*. Next month I’m an invited keynote speaker at the Design Research Society’s conference in the UK; it’s very satisfying to have this opportunity.

    My quick story: I came from a related discipline (human-computer interaction) and I apprenticed for several years with others who had a variety of backgrounds (social science – but not anthropology and not a PhD; design, architecture).

    Engineers-and-culture (their customer cultures and their corporate cultures) is a favorite topic and one that I’m thinking about a lot this week, as I’m speaking to Nortel’s technical conference in Orlando tomorrow morning. One of the concerns voiced in the planning for this talk was that since many people’s jobs don’t involve them dealing with customers, there has to be something for them in the advice; it’s not practical for them to get into the field since that’s mostly led by the user-experience function. Maybe that’s necessarily the case, maybe it isn’t. My response has been to pose understanding culture as an ongoing mindset, muscles that can be always exercised, rather than as a process for finding facts. Engineers still shop, travel, commute, attend movies, and participate in most aspects of consumer culture. While this traditionally leads to the dreaded product definition based on one’s self (or one’s spouse, even worse), it ALSO provides an opportunity for observational research as a way of thinking about the world: how do other people personalize their vehicles (i.e., or how do other companies design a feature set and how do people succeed or fail when dealing with it?

    I’d say a corporate culture of noticers – people that are constantly tuning into how things may be from a variety of perspectives – is more likely than a corporate culture of ethnographers. Maybe, as I think you are suggesting, if engineers know that they view the relay race differently than the Olympian, then they can focus on the crucial task of designing for SOMEONE ELSE.

    *of course, people in our work should spend at least some of their wondering if they are indeed faking it, shouldn’t they?

  8. Laurie

    An effective way to learn about culture is to go to Journalism school: learn to listen, observe and sort information that people not only say but emit through their body language, their clothing, their way of holding themselves together. Do this for years and years and develop a sixth sense about people. Then expose yourself to a variety of people in an array of situations; then subtract the basic needs according to Maslow and what’s left is culture.

  9. Phil

    Interesting because I developed my own analogy.
    Imagine you end up in a strange city (a few years ago I called it Culturopolis) in which the signs are in a completely unknown script. Not even the arrow sign is the same as in your languange.
    How do you find your way around.
    Well most people would (tentatively) explore.
    A guide would be useful; perhaps someone who had been there before. That person may have developed heuristics to get from one type of street to another – “keep this wall to your left and when you see the round tower, turn right through the arch; that is the food store”.
    Your guide is (of course) the sociologist or anthropologist who had developed his own ‘etic’ view of the culture. It is not, necessarily, the ’emic’ view of the residents. The sociologist would like to own a helicopter, then he could see the street plan.
    Of course if you live there for a long time, you will get to know you way around.

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